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Editorial: The Future of the Linux Desktop

“The year of Linux on the Desktop.” Typically, these articles show up near the end of the year. They always cause a big debate “Will 200* be the year of Linux on the Desktop?!” is the headline, followed by comment wars. The comment wars break down like this. Linux vs. Windows users, Mac vs. Linux users, a branch war of Windows vs. Mac users, KDE vs. Gnome users, Ubuntu lovers/haters, Compiz vs. Beryl, pro/anti DRM people and the list goes on and on. A consensus is never reached. Some concepts show up over and over. This editorial addresses those concepts.

Dear Old Grandma

“Linux will never be ready until my mom/grandma/aunt can use it!” It is funny to me that it almost always is a female. Linux is ready, since this mythical female only uses the computer to do email and browse the web. Linux isn’t ready because this same female won’t understand the package manager or this or that. Once everyone agrees that this female can use Linux, the heavens will open and finally, Microsoft’s monopoly will be over. This concept is fundamentally flawed.

When speaking of the mom/grandma/aunt, people are really speaking of “normal” everyday users. I’ll refer to them as older people for the sake of this article. The goal is to get Linux to the point where older people can use it. Oddly enough, we are pretty much there. For simple and basic computing tasks (think internet appliance) there is no reason why Linux isn’t appropriate. If the old person isn’t going to play games or run Photoshop, modern distros provide everything needed. Firefox and Thunderbird give you a great web browser and email client. covers word processing needs. There are plenty of other great programs, including Gaim (now renamed Pidgin) for instant messaging, GIMP for photo editing and plenty of card games. They will run into trouble when they try and download “The Prize Machine” or some other junk from a website, but for all intents and purposes they are covered. Linux can handle, very nicely, their basic computing needs.

That doesn’t mean they will switch, though. These people have a different mindset than you, the person reading this. They want to stick with what is familiar to them, what is known. Do you have a relative that refuses to switch from AOL, even after they have gotten broadband? I do, and I bet there are plenty out there. You can tell them all you want about the security of Linux, how it is “Free as in Freedom”, how they won’t really notice a difference, but it will fall on deaf ears. In their mind, Linux is this weird thing that they are better off not taking a chance on. These are the people that are happy to pay the Geek Squad to install an anti-virus on their Windows 98 Celeron box, rather than get something better, for free, from you. That is fine. When their ten year old motherboard fails, they can’t fault the “Linux you installed on it that broke it”. After all, it was working fine until you got to it.

Let them be. They can be someone else’s problem. If you’ve ever lived the nightmare of free phone support to these people then you know you are better off staying away.

Me: “Click ‘file’ which is on your top toolbar”

OP: “Toolbar? I don’t have a toolbar!! What does it look like?”

Me: “It should be near the top of your screen, above the navigation buttons…”

OP: “Navigation buttons? You mean at the bottom?! I don’t see any buttons. You mean on the keyboard?”

God forbid they accidentally delete their Internet Explorer icon from the desktop. They no longer have the internet!

The times are changing. Leave the old people that aren’t technically inclined to their comfortable existence, with its viruses, spyware and network of zombie drone machines. You can’t really teach an old dog new tricks. A lot of effort is being wasted on preparing something for people that do not want it. Imagine if video game manufacturers said games won’t be ready until their grandma can play them.

The YouTube Generation

Younger people are different. The world they know is different than the one most of us grew up in. Music for them isn’t something you go and purchase at the store. Cheap thrills don’t come through the underwear section of the Sears catalog, they flow freely through their torrent clients. It isn’t the number of signatures in their yearbook that count, it is the size of their friends list on MySpace. Technology isn’t some newfangled thing to gripe about, it has been part of their existence their whole life. A lot of these kids are trying Linux. They may not know that Ubuntu is a Debian derivative or have read the GNU manifesto, but they are installing and running Linux. They run MythTV. This is our audience. These are the people to court.

The 3D desktop in Linux is pulling these people in. Flaming window animations, spinning transparent cubes, wobbly windows are catching people’s imaginations. This is completely unscientific, but will illustrate my point. A search for “Beryl” on YouTube gives 4,120 results. “Compiz” gets 799. “XGL” nets 2640, “AIGLX” 500. “Ubuntu” gets 3240. “Aero” gives 3,900 with a lot of non-Windows results. “Aero Vista” gives 167. “Kelly Ripa” gets 352, so Beryl is immensely more popular than Kelly Ripa on YouTube. At this point, it isn’t trivial to install Compiz or Beryl but these people are doing it. Not only are they doing it, but they are taking the time to take video of their screens and promote it on YouTube.

The more technically inclined of this group is fiercly anti Digital Rights Management (or Digital Restrictions Management). They want their media on their terms. Piracy is rampant. Paying for software is a concept to be mocked by some of them. They want bling. They want speed. They are installing Ubuntu and Sabayon and aren’t concerned about how Flashplayer or their video card drivers fit into the Free Software world. Free Software is familiar to them from Firefox, Wordpress, Drupal and to a lesser extent, Blender. They game on their consoles.

These people will make excellent converts to the cause. If I were running a distribution targeted at them, like Linux Mint or Sabayon, I’d make education part of the Distribution. Include links to the Free Software Foundation, the GNU project and the Electronic Frontier Foundation prominently in Firefox. Get some documentation out saying that while you include MP3, Flash and Nvidia/Ati drivers by default, here is why people are against doing that. Promote the fact that they are running a legitimate operating system and why this is better than just pirating XP or Vista. I admit that this sounds cheesy, but I believe that we can gain some traction here. As dark clouds gather, with Trusted Computing, DRM and Patent disputes on the horizon, we need as many people as we can behind us. Now is the time.

But… My App Won’t Run

One thing I read consistently is that this or that app doesn’t run on Linux. Photoshop, CAD Software, I even read a complaint that Visual Studio doesn’t run on Linux. Wine has come a long way, and you can get some programs running with it, but it is mostly irrelevant. Cedega from Transgaming has done nice work getting games to run on Linux. Still, Photoshop does run under Linux. Any Windows program you name does. All you have to do is install a Virtual Machine, be it VMware, Xen, QEMU or whatever, then install Windows. You can then run Linux, and easily run any Windows native program you need. This solves the perceived hassle of dual booting. Linux doesn’t require complete monogamy.

I have run Linux almost exclusively for the past ten years. I love it. It does just about everything I need, and more. It still did not save me from the hand of the Great Monopoly, though. When sending out my resume, most employers requested it in Word format. Using Open Office and saving it as a .doc screwed up the formatting, something unacceptable to future employers. After trying a few things, I finally had to bite the bullet and use Microsoft Office. OpenDocument (.odt) is a great format, but it isn’t widely known and accepted. Did I sell out? Possibly. The way I looked at it, I had to use the right tool for the right job. I needed to create a perfect looking Word document, so I used Word to do it.

This is changing, as well. There are great free online office suites. Google Docs and Spreadsheets work well. Zoho Office is amazing. Offline, Open Office, Abiword and Kword all do a very good job, a hell of a lot cheaper than Microsoft Office. If you have basic word processing needs, I can easily recommend all of the above. 

The Future

64 Bit Computing. Distros should focus more on this area. The need to run 64 bit applications is debatable; 64 bit processors run fine in 32 bit mode. The problem is that you really cannot buy a 32 bit processor anymore, so the future is now. I haven’t run into too many problems running 64bit distros, but there are a few gotchas here and there. Let’s continue the work so we can run what we need natively.

Educate. As new users enter the fold, let’s make sure they understand the importance of why they are able to freely use what they are using. Most may not care, but the ones that do can help to be influential. The stakes are high, and we should make sure they understand what they are.

We welcome our new Google Overlords. Google Docs and Spreadsheets and Zoho Office are our best chance of breaking the Microsoft Office monopoly. Picasa and Google Earth run on Linux. The move away from applications being OS dependent will only help us in the long run.

Compiz/Beryl/Compositing Community. It is still early, and the 3D desktop on Linux is working very well. There are a lot of great changes coming in the near future. I have seen nothing excite normal people the way this has. It may be frivolous to have all of these effects running, but overall people like them. The days of Linux being disregarded as some UNIX dinosaur that is a nightmare to use are over. Things are moving rapidly in this space, and it is great to see.

Virtualization. You can now run Windows fairly easily within Linux using any of the Virtualization tools out there. You can also dabble in Solaris or any of the BSDs. If you have to run something that will not run on Linux, fine. Boot up your VM and run the program from there. Obviously, the reverse is true. If you are afraid of getting rid of windows, go ahead and install VMware Server and try Linux out inside of it. Hell, install Linux, then Windows in a VM, then install a VM in windows and install BSD, repeat until you reach infinity.

Keep the Faith. Since I’ve long past gone out on the limb of sounding cheesy, I’m going for broke. There are a lot of challenges ahead for Linux. There is also nothing out there like Linux. It has been an exciting ten years, watching this thing grow and improve almost daily. First and foremost, it is an operating system written by nerds for nerds. That is our greatest strength. Infighting in the community is good, when it displays the passion people feel for a particular piece of software. In my eyes, all of this choice is a good thing. As Linux continues to evolve, things will fall into place. We just need to stay vigilant. The year of the Linux Desktop is here, for those of us that use it every day.


April 10th, 2007 Posted by admin | Editorial, free software, linux | 13 comments

Quick Links: Fedora Core 6 Helpful Sites

I am working on upcoming content, stay tuned…

I decided to give Fedora 6 a run. RedHat is seeming like the underdog lately, with Oracle undercutting them. The Novell and Microsoft unholy alliance looks to be a shot right at RedHat. I will review it after I have run it for a while. In the meantime, here are some helpful links if you are running Fedora 6 (Zod).

A personal Fedora 6 Install guide. Pay attention to the IPv6 section if your web browsing seems very slow. The directions fixed it for me.

KDE for Fedora. I see people complain constantly about the state of KDE on Fedora. UnleashKDE seems to be a response to those complaints.

Want Firefox 2.0? This solution worked for me, I keeps FF 1.5 and installs 2.0 so they co-exist.

Why can’t I play mp3’s out of the box?! Here is a thoughtful answer.

Rallying the troops. Warren Tagomi responds on his personal blog about recent events.

So far, 24 hours in, my experience with Fedora 6 is positive. I would rank it under Mandriva One and tied with Ubuntu 6.10. That is a far cry from how I have felt before.

How do you feel about Fedora, in light of recent events?

Apple Store

November 7th, 2006 Posted by admin | Uncategorized, free software, Fedora, quick links, linux, tips, kde | 2 comments

Editorial: Thoughts on Mandriva’s Future

Mandriva 2007 may be the best distribution I have used. XGL/AIGLX worked for me right out of the box. My windows wobbled, things were transparent and I got to spin the cube. The updated look of Mandriva One is fresh. I was able to install anything I needed. Looking through Mandriva’s forum, you see employees of the company who care and are genuinely trying to help. Mandriva offers “free as in freedom” versions and versions with propriatery software–meaning Nvidia drivers are set up, MP3’s play and you can watch DVDs. You would expect a release like this to be trumpeted. Instead, the release was met with hostility. Forums on tech sites were filled with Linux users cheering for the end of Mandriva. What happened? How did a company that was loved at one time become so unpopular? Is the hostility justified?

I think a starting point for these bad feelings began with the advent of the Mandriva (formerly Mandrake) Club in late 2001. Mandriva needed a revenue source, so the club began and seemingly transformed Mandriva into a subscription based model service. Some of the benefits included propriatery software being available for download. Club members got an exclusive download mirror list and full access to commercial applications. They got the newest releases a few weeks before everyone else.

The biggest disaster here was the delay in getting the new release for non members. Most distro junkies are very enthusiastic about trying the latest and greatest. It is sad, but there are plenty of us that follow release schedules and excitedly jump on an announced new release. We aren’t overly committed to one distribution. It is interesting to see the improvements made, find the mistakes and compare it to similar distros. We may have loved Mandrake, but didn’t love it enough to commit to the club. Mandrake was having trouble at the time. I was a member, got early access, and couldn’t install Mandrake 10. The installer kept freezing due to problems with my motherboard. I left Mandrake and the club, never to look back. It may not make sense, but by the time a new release was available to the public, I didn’t care. I was irritated at being made to wait a month and it just didn’t seem new a month later. Other distributions didn’t make me do that. The delay made Mandriva less appealing.

I also had a sense that my non-club install would be crippled. If I wanted propriatery drivers or non-free codecs I had to join the club. I was wrong about this, but didn’t know it. The message a lot of us got was Mandriva only cared about you if you paid. We moved on. PCLinuxOS came along. Ubuntu showed up. Mandriva became irrelevant to a lot of its former users.

Then Gael Duval was laid off. This made the community crazy. Mr. Duval founded Mandrake in 1998. The CEO, François Bancilhon, painted it as a painful business decision. Gael claimed he was fired, and announced he was suing the company. Was it a good decision? There really is no way to answer that. From a PR perspective, it was terrible. It looked like big, greedy Mandriva got arrogantly corporate and decided to attack the hero of the people, Gael. In real life, things are rarely so cut and dried. I have read a few interviews with Mr. Bancilhon. He seems like a genuinely funny and good natured man. I have read postings by Mr. Duval and he comes off as likable. I, and I guess most of you, have no idea what the pressures are in running a publicly traded Linux company. I can only comment on how it played out on “the internets”.

If things weren’t bad enough, on the eve of Mandriva 2007’s release Distrowatch attacked! Distrowatch Weekly portrayed a personal blog entry by Vincent Danen as a public relations statement from Mandriva. They quoted Danen calling kernel developers “idiots”. The headline of the blog was “Why I would never use Linux for my main desktop.” Dannen’s response is here. As you can guess, the comment section was filled with glee at the coming death of Mandriva. Long live Ubuntu! Woohoo!

It is a shame that we are at this point. My experience with Mandriva 2007 has been very positive. I installed Mandriva One, a live cd with an installer that is similar to another famous distribution. Using PLF in addition to Mandriva’s repos, I was able to get all the packages I wanted. The 3D desktop works without problem. It is an outstanding distribution, easily Mandriva’s best in years. It is better than the lastest Ubuntu, which I have been running as well. 2007 doesn’t seem to be gaining much traction in the community. I see fifty reviews of Edgy, fifty of Fedora, barely any for Mandriva. It is too bad, because the company took a big step forward by releasing Mandriva One and Mandriva Free to everyone on the release date. It was a great and courageous decision on their part. It was a very nice first step to repairing some of the damage done.

Here is where they should go now, in my humble opinion:

Simplify club membership. The levels are confusing. The breakdown of the club levels does not show much of an advantage to joining as a Silver or Gold member. There is a mention of a free, reduced benefit Aluminum membership, but I can’t find how to sign up for it. There is mention of VIP membership, but no details other than it is free for exceptional contributors. Why not make VIP memberships available to testers that file a certain number of bug reports, or people who contribute a certain amount of documentation? This would create much good will. Renaming the levels might be helpful… something like Basic, Home and Ultimate? ;)

Move away from using software as the selling point of the club. People aren’t going to pay for something they can get for free from other distros. They will just switch to those distros. I would offer free two month memberships with no strings attached, so people can see what the club is about, get used to it and then decide to keep it. Giving these away shows confidence in the club. Divorce using the club from using the distro. Make sure people understand that they aren’t at a disadvantage if they are not members. Fear will not bring in new members. Providing services like eTraining and the ability to have a fancier forum identity page will bring them in. If the club is so great, show me so I can decide that I need it. Don’t use it to deny my software like Nvidia or wireless drivers.

Take advantage of Vista. When Vista is released, there is going to be a huge opportunity to get people using Mandriva. Once the restrictions inherent in Vista, like the two install limit per license limit or the barring of running it in a virtual machine, become apparent, people will want to see the alternatives. Mandriva One is a great way to demonstrate how well Linux works. Get it in people’s faces.

Capitalize on Ubuntu’s stumble. There is a fair amount of unhappiness and disappointment with Ubuntu 6.10 (Edgy). Promote your ease of use. Promote a free two month club membership. Do something to get Mandriva’s name on the big tech sites pages. Promote Mandriva’s history. Let everyone know about your outstanding commitment to free software.

Simplify The website is a mess. There are seemingly fourteen million different links on the main page. If you go to the site looking for anything, it is too complicated to find. Break the page up a bit. Each section goes to five different products for each class of user (business, individuals, partners and community). Get an honest critique of the site and redo it.

Use Oracle’s attack on Red Hat to your advantage. Price your support lower than Oracle’s, if possible. Show why you are a leader and a wise choice. For god’s sake, fix the spelling errors on your business page. You cannot expect a business to invest in your product if you cannot use proper grammar and spelling when you promote it. It gives off the impression that you are more focused on French business and aren’t serious about the United States.

Get your people talking to the press. I have only very recently discovered the outstanding employees that Mandriva has. Adam Williamson can be seen on different forums (and a lot in Mandriva’s forums) representing the company in a very positive way. His communications are thoughtful and honest. His comments in the Distrowatch Weekly comment section went a long way toward cooling a bad situation down. Vincent Danen shows that he cares, even if his blog was controversial. Warly is very helpful in the Mandriva forums. I thought this interview did a great job of showing the talent Mandriva has. You need these people to be seen, to show the human face of your company. It also lets us know that you have not given up on North America and only care about the European and South American markets.

I planned this editorial a month ago and intended to voice my displeasure with Mandriva. It amazes me how quickly things can change. I was blown away by Mandriva One, impressed with the company’s decision to release 2007 to the full community. I have watched the staff handle a difficult situation with grace and honesty. I have come full circle and now am rooting for Mandriva.

My meme for the next year will be “Mandriva is the next Ubuntu”. I predict that by this time next year, Mandriva will be the trendy distribution. We Linux users are a fickle bunch, but only need to be shown that the companies we support care about this (and us) as much as we do. I believe Mandriva will be doing a lot repair work over the next year. Watch out Red Hat and Ubuntu. There is a company tanned, rested and ready. I wish them luck.
Apple Store

November 1st, 2006 Posted by admin | Mandriva, Editorial, free software, internets, linux, plf | 23 comments